Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hope (part 1)

For a long time, I’ve had mixed feelings about hope. It’s a sparkly idea and all, and would have made a great monosyllabic middle name for our fourth daughter had we had triplets, going nicely with the twins’ “Grace” and “Faith.”

But I have a couple beefs about the whole idea of hope.

Beef #1: People hoping for change too often are people sitting on the sidelines complaining about the status quo and waiting for someone else to alter it. Rather than saying, “I hope such-and-such occurs,” I’d rather say, “Here’s what I want and here’s what I’m doing to create it.” Victims and slaves hope. As a free person, why not act instead?

And here’s Beef #2: When I’m hoping for something better down the line, I’m probably missing out on something great right here and now. C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, that in his miserable years of boarding school, perhaps the best thing he learned about the Christian walk was to live by hope—ever looking forward to the freedom and bliss of holiday. But wasn’t every moment he spent fantasizing about what was to come a moment lost on embracing what was? Isn’t every ounce of energy I spend pining for the future an ounce lost on appreciating the present? “Hope” seems like a happy, shiny word for “procrastinating happiness.” I say, why not have it now?

My kids make me think about this whole thing. Though their lives are far less miserable than schoolboy Lewis’s was, they too live by hope, always looking forward to what is next. “When is my birthday?” asks Melía daily. “What tind bir'day party I am doing have?” She savors conversation about an event that is months away, living in regular communion with the ghosts of birthday future. We think this is cute and go with it.

I’m sure I did plenty of this as a kid. But I remember my parents reminding me how precious the present was. They told me that my childhood years were the best of my life, that if anything, our growing up was happening too fast. This kind of talk did give me a certain trepidation about the onslaught of adulthood stress, but it also taught me to seize the day, because tomorrow is not likely to be any better than today. I wonder if I am doing too little of this with my kids.

I motivate my kids through difficult circumstances with hope. But I don’t like it. Last night I took the three girls to a former student’s graduation, a boring prospect even for people with attention spans longer than a Dora the Explorer episode. We swung through the evening like Tarzan from bribery to bribery: ice cream sandwiches if they got out to the car quickly, McDonald’s if they behaved during graduation, Blue’s Clues if they refrained from fighting my pajama-donning and tooth-brushing efforts. It’s embarrassing to write about. But it worked.

Is hope just something the powers that be, whether good or evil, use to manipulate us?

I have stories to tell about my kids’ hope that are making me question my questions about the value of hope. I’ll share a few next time….

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Prayer-time prayer

Lord, help.

I want our evening prayer time to be fun. But I also want my kids to stick around for the fun. They do have fun during prayer time; it's just fun completely unrelated to the prayer process. They laugh, play, box, squirm, bounce, wrestle, bite, kiss, tickle and wiggle, and that is fun.

But how do I crack down on these innocent activities so destructive of the focus I'm going for without wreaking another kind of destruction even less desirable than playing during prayer? I can explain to Brielle that God loves fun, and loves to hear us laugh, but sometimes He likes us to take a break from laughing so we can talk to Him about things that are not just laughing things. I think it made sense to her, but it sure felt like saying, "Talking with God is the vegetables, and the stuff you really want to do is dessert."

How do I draw their attention to the need for reverence, for silence, for respect, for awe, without raining on the parade of their God-given joy? Shoot, how do I even get through a modest-length bedtime prayer without sending someone to timeout or sounding like a self-interrupting idiot?

Melía, for example, has learned to pray the way we have modeled, even when there is no competing noise. "Dear Jesus--I'M PRAYING! Thank You for this wonderful--I'M PRAYING! Thank You for Mommy and Daddy and--I'M PRAYING! Thank You for Brielle and Ashlyn--MOMMY, I'M PRAYING!" These Tourette's-like utterances punctuate her prayers, just as they do ours. But, Lord, it is sad. What can we do?

OK, let's brainstorm options:
  1. Ignore the bad behavior and hope it goes away.
  2. Send all offenders to timeout on first offense, even if it means we're down to Mommy-Daddy prayer time with screaming children in various corners of the house.
  3. Don't miss a beat; simply swat children as I pray for God to help us love people even when they are not nice to us.
  4. Best of #1 and #3: Ignore misdeeds during prayer (as inaudible as they may render the prayer itself), swat child after we are all done praying for love.
  5. Scold children via God by praying for divine intervention to control their misbehavior (my least favorite option because of how often my parents prayed things like, "And please help Michael not to scratch his brother's face while we are praying to You," after which I would insist that God ignore any such entreaties).
  6. Give up on bedtime prayers till the children act appropriately (i.e. potentially not until our funeral).
I have tried all of the above except #6, and let me tell You, Lord, that one gets pretty tempting sometimes.

Maybe this all bothers me so much because I know how hard it is to settle my own soul down to pray. I have my own versions of squirming and giggling and fiddling and fussing that derail my soul from focus on its Creator: phone calls, self-congratulation, self-condemnation, NPR, blaming, worrying and Figuring It All Out, just for starters. I'm sure God has tried a list much longer than the above to get me to have the kind of fun that talking with Him can be, but so often I settle for lesser diversions.

Parents are wont to push their offspring to succeed in ways they've never been able to themselves. I guess this is a wholesome drive at times, but often it's no more than a lust for vicarious accomplishment. It's not about the kid; it's about me.

Maybe I'm so desperate for them to get this prayer thing now because I fear I've never really gotten it myself.

Be that as it may, Lord.... Help me help them. Help them. Help me. Help!


Monday, May 26, 2008

Things I never dreamed I'd say

Everyone knows kids say the darnedest things. But only parents know how often kids lead you to speak, pause, review what you just said, and wonder at the improbable language required for childrearing. We say insane stuff every day.

When I get the time, I'd like to create a random generator of things parents of young children have either said or will eventually say. All the computer would do is select a random choice from each of these categories:
  1. Negative mandate (with implied threat) such as "stop trying to, you should never, please do not, never ever, you will go on time-out if you, I'm pulling over and it will be ouchy if I see you," etc.
  2. Verb for frequent child behaviors, including but not limited to "hit, eat, break, throw, mess up, bite, kick, fuss at, scratch, smash, inhale, cut, splash, lick, pinch, wet, hurt, fight," etc.
  3. Likely object of verb (usually something sentient, fragile, valuable or totally disgusting): "your sister, me, the carpet, my jewelry box, the kitten, poopoo, sand, peepee, the computer, the family portrait, the curtains, the toilet, your food, bathwater, my papers, the dirty gummy bear from under the car seat," and so forth.
A parent smart enough to program a robot to say these randomly generated bits of wisdom might save volumes of speech. Recording these phrases in one's own voice, randomly putting them together and then playing them at night while the child is sleeping would be a great subliminal preemptive strike on all manner of misdeeds, or at least would allow a parent to later say, with virtual truth, "I told you not to do that!"

Off the top of my head, here are just a few of the really-truly bizarrisms that we can remember saying, unaided by technology:
  • Do not eat the Band-Aid you took off your foot.
  • Never ever wipe your bottom with the hand towel.
  • No biting the chair while on time-out.
  • Please do not blow your nose onto the couch/Mommy's dress/the dishtowel.
  • Do not go poopoo in the bath tub.
  • Do not drink the bath water! It has poopoo in it!
  • Your sister/the kitten/Mommy's hair/the power screwdriver is not a toy!
  • Please do not ever stick a marble up your nose again.
  • Only eat flowers that Daddy tells you to eat.
  • No, you may not ride on top of the minivan.
  • Stop biting your Cinderella dress.
  • You can't wear your Jasmine dress to church.
  • Please take off your Snow White dress before taking a bath.
  • Do not throw diapers in the toilet.
  • Please clean the table with something besides the broom.
  • I don't think the kitty wants to eat your raisins.
The list gives you a feel for a day in the life, but is far from exhaustive. And if it were exhaustive today, it would be so no longer by tomorrow. New material is generated as often as our bathroom floor is desecrated by potty-trainers.

I would love to read other weird things parents have said in the line of duty. Maybe I can work them into my random Daddy-talk generator someday!

So, "for real life," as Brielle would say, let's hear
them! Please comment away with your own peculiar parental prose!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bedside prayer

Last night I put Brielle to bed an hour late.

This is hardly an aberration. But usually it happens because they’ve fought more, kicked the pajamas off an extra time or two, gritted the teeth harder than normal through tooth-brushing time, and come up with more creative excuses to keep us waiting on them once they’re in bed.

But this time, child and parent both lost an hour of sleep just because I could not resist lingering with Brielle for the sublime conversation she had to offer.

The twins were down, and Mommy was down the mountain at her women’s Bible study, leaving just Daddy and the girl who first named me that. Kneeling by her bed, I had just told the parable of the talents, and had broken down how God shares so much good stuff with us, and wants us to use it, not bury it.

Brielle was pensive. “We use a lot of God’s stuff,” she observed.

Verdad, Brielle. All the stuff we have is God’s, and He likes when we use it for good things,” I agreed.

“Yeah.” She laughed and stared ahead, lips pursed, her deep thinking evidenced by the tiny movements of her cheeks and jaw. “And God is even a girl too.”

I smiled. “Yeah, Brielle. God is way too big to be just a boy or just a girl. He is everything,” I chimed in, delighted that she had already surpassed most of the Christian church in her thinking on the gender of God, but wondering how.

Somehow the topic turned to the Second Coming of Christ, more popular than ever since losing two Papas and a kitty. I said something about the nonlinear growth we would experience when Jesus came and completed our ultimate transformation. Only I think I told her we would not do bad things anymore or have ouchies anymore because Jesus would do magic on us.

At this, her eyes glowed, cheeks swelling the way Ashlyn’s do when she is imagining herself to be a bride. “I can’t wait for God to do stuff to us. He might even give us wings, I think.”

“Maybe He will. Or maybe He will teach us to fly without wings, like Jesus can.” I have this irrational burden to prevent her from disillusionment if heaven’s transformations do not include wings.

Presently we were on to angels. She pointed at a spot on her pillow about six inches from where she sat. “Our angel is RIGHT-THERE,” she said, the last two words running together. She grinned—“RIGHT-THERE,” and giggled. “Our angel is right next to us and God is in our heart. And God is everywhere. God is even in my shirt.” She pulled her pajama top away from her and spoke through the neck toward her belly button. “Hi, God! Where are you? God! Where are you?” She giggled some more, and then turned back to a more sober question.

“Why is God everywhere but we can’t see Him?”

No response from Daddy beyond a mystified sigh.

“Daddy, why is God everywhere but we can’t see Him?”

I wasn’t going to get away with pleading the fifth. “I don’t know, Brielle.” I searched my heart for what I really believe about this, and realized that to this question I have no satisfying answer. Another sigh. “Maybe it’s because God is so big and strong and bright that it would scare us if we really saw Him. It would hurt our eyes. We can see God in people when they love like Jesus does. But sometimes I really do wish I could see God more right now with my eyes.”

“I think when we go to heaven God will give us eyes that are strong so we can see really bright stuff and it won’t be ouchy.”

Sí, Brielle. I think He will. Jesus even told us that if our eyes are good, our whole body will be full of light. But if they are bad our whole body will be full of darkness.” As cool as that verse is to me, it was kind of a non sequitur here, I realized, so I didn’t bother preaching it further.

Brielle offered me another paradigm. “I think God is like electricity.”

I liked this. “You do? Why?”

“Because electricity has power and God has power.”

“Yeah, Brielle. That’s right. And even though you can’t see electricity, it works—just like God.”

“Uh-huh,” said Brielle, relieved, I’m sure, that I was catching on.

Somewhere around 10 p.m, the back door opened and Rachelle walked in. Sheepish about how late I had our daughter awake, I moved toward prayer.

Actually, we moved our prayer on to its next breath.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Riverside prayer

When I think of all the things I could write about—things that have been so busy happening that they never bothered to materialize on the computer—I am overwhelmed. Every day my kids say and do things that are so cute, so disturbing, so hilarious, so instructive, that they demand being captured. Before beginning this blog, these things flowed like a waterfall, a steady stream that could be enjoyed but never caught. Beginning a project like this, I imagine myself cupping hands under that waterfall and hoping to catch it all. This, of course, would miss the point of enjoying the flow.

When I am in the mode of documenting important moments with my kids—ALL of them—I feel like Jesus’ friend Martha, so eager to get the carrots chopped up and into the soup that I neglect to be with my Guest. “Michael, Michael,” I can hear Him saying, “You are worried and upset many things [that you have missed writing about in the last several weeks]. But only one thing is needed.” (Apologies to Dr. Luke....)

I do want to spend more regular time here, where the rivers of childlike inspiration and parental desperation flow together, cupping hands, yes, but not to capture so much as to feel its shocking cold, to gawk at its transparency, to wonder and be refreshed. Much more will flow downstream than I could ever hold.

Today, despite all the unwritten stories begging to be documented, what I want more than anything is to pray for my kids.

God, please help them to be safe from all dangers—especially those more dangerous than loss of life. Deliver them from materialism, from the claustrophobia of self-absorption. Save them from the compulsion to please the audience of their peers. Rescue them from fear and its addictions: being right, looking good, coming out on top.

Make them citizens first of heaven, second of Earth, and third of their communities; may their contribution to our nation flow from these three loyalties. Teach them to value the differences in people, to crave new viewpoints and savor stories from less-heard voices. Help them to open their eyes and ears and hearts to the weirdos of the world and see, hear, love—Jesus.

Give them joy. Teach them to live for what they really want, beyond what they feel like, to set their course by the deep, silent yearning You have given them rather than the hollow cravings that shout for their attention. Help them acquire a taste for satisfying labor. When lesser options are more numerous and more obvious, instill in them the habit of choosing happiness.

Love them in ways they notice, or better yet, help them to notice all the ways You love them.

I love them so much, Lord. Help me be the kind of Daddy that makes palatable—even desirable—the idea of a Father-God.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The bottom line

A quick vignette, brought to you again by Ashlyn.

We were poking down our food in the Chinese restaurant. We ordered it to-go, just in case our children's behavior meant we suddenly needed to. Ashlyn was sitting next to me, rolling her legs up over her head and mooning the restaurant.

"Ashlyn, we don't want to show our bottom to the whole restaurant."

"But I want to show it to them because it's beautiful."

I coughed over my explosion of laughter.

"Yes, Ashie, all of you is beautiful. It's just that there are some parts that we don't want to show everyone here in public."

"Well, I want to show them my bottom."

Amen to the God's-eye view that sees beauty where others see shame, to the heart unafraid to bare what the timid keep hidden. Love makes us free.

And that is the bottom line.